Fostering Faith, One Talk at a Time

America is growing more secular. All the studies say so. While it’s still an overwhelmingly religious country (and most adherents say they’re Christian), numerous polls have shown a rise in people who claim no religious affiliation. Many Christians worry that their children will slip away from the faith. And, from personal experience, I can tell you that that can happen.

But if you want to foster a healthy sense of spirituality in your kids, there’s a critical step you can take: Talk with them about your faith.

According to a new wave of data from the ongoing National Study of Youth and Religion (and reported on by David Briggs of the Association of Religion Data Archives), parents have a huge impact on whether their own children become religious adults.

“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” says Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist and lead author of the study. “Parents just dominate.”

The study actually began way back in 2002 and 2003, tracking teens and their relationship to faith. Now those teens are young adults—ages 24 to 29. And there’s no question that these young adults are engaged with a more secular country than their parents were.

But here’s the thing: 82% of teens raised by moms and dads whose faith was important to them—and who demonstrated that importance by talking about it and taking an active part in church—were spiritually active themselves. That’s no guarantee, of course, but you have to like those odds.

In comparison, teens raised in more secular households were almost guaranteed to be pretty secular themselves. Only 1% of those secularized teens went on to find a meaningful connection with faith.

“Parents, for better or worse, are actually the most influential pastors .. of their children,” Smith said during a presentation of his findings at the Yale Divinity School. “Parents set a kind of glass ceiling of religious commitment, above which their children rarely rise.”

So how do you show your kids the importance of religion? Going to church is a good step, of course. Volunteering at church is one step better. But it seems like the biggest factor in encouraging children and teens to follow your faith is to talk about it.

It’s funny: We should know all this already, and maybe we do. Dads, as the spiritual leader of the home, should be particularly aware of their need to communicate religious truth. But I think a lot of times we pass on the responsibility, leaving our children’s spiritual education to outside “experts” like pastors and youth leaders. But this study stresses that we moms and dads are still by far the most important teachers our kids have, particularly when it comes to faith. There’s just no overstating our influence.

Yeah, it can be tricky to talk about religion with our kids. We don’t always know what to say or how to say it. And if we consciously try to foster really open discussion, our kids’ questions can be pretty challenging. But all the more reason to deal with those questions head-on, right? It’s so much better if you try to answer those questions—however imperfect you feel those answers might be—than leave a void for other influencers to fill.

I’ve always felt that good communication is one of the most important keys to good parenting. If you’re worried that your children might turn away from faith, the answer might be as close as an afternoon walk or a chat around the dinner table.